The really neat thing to me about the mythology of the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere is that their mythologies are alive. They are not simply stories of the past. They are lived out by the cultures from which they arose and they continue to be told and augmented. Rather than just be a neat campfire or bedtime story, these mythologies are still being woven, created with each new telling. Artist Lauren Raine describes mythology this way: “Myth comes alive as it enters the cauldron of evolution, drawing energy from the storytellers who shape it.”
The Thinking Woman is not just an American Indian myth, although she is prominent in the cultural oral tradition of many different tribes. The Greek mythological character Penelope’s name literally means “webbed vision” or “web on her face”. In some cultures, Thinking Woman is called Thought Woman. The Pueblo called her Thinking Woman; The Navajo Referred to her as Grandmother Spider Woman or “Na’ashje’ii’sdfzq’q”; the Hopi Indians knew her as ‘Sonukfang”.
I will be the first to admit I am not a huge fan of spiders. I probably border on having arachnophobia, in fact. I am amazed, nonetheless, at their ability to weave such fine webs and marvel at their ability to use such delicacy to capture their prey. We’ve discussed the Spider mythology of African cultures and, as mentioned before, even the Greeks made reference to the web of life. It is in the mythologies of the Western hemisphere that we really see the emphasis on the connectedness of mankind.
Many cultures have always referenced a female creator spirit. Some historians and archaeologists feel that Christianity is the influence behind male creator deities but, in truth, we have no real basis for this. While it is an undeniable fact that women bear children, they cannot do so without a male. In mythology science takes a back seat so some believe the first creator made the world from a discard blood clot while others believe the universe was woven from a great spirit’s imagination.
In her book “The Trail of Spider Woman”, Carol Patterson-Rudolph wrote: “It is through the poetry of myth, mask and metaphor Spiderwoman comes alive. The rock surface of an ancient petroglyph site is merely a veil between the observer and the other transcendental realms; it becomes a portal through which to enter the world of Spider Woman. “
The Keres tribe believed that in the beginning there was only one being, a spider named “Sus’sistinako”. Being all alone, she sent her thoughts out into the galaxies or space. With these thoughts, Sus’sistinako wove together the universe. Under the earth she placed the Corn Mother, “Iatiku”. Credit was given to Iatiku for creating the physical and emotional elements of the world, even the concept of fun called Koshare, a clown supposedly made from her own discarded skin cells.
Like another deity we recently discussed, Iatiku was two-fold. One part stayed underground and it was to this characterization that the dead returned. The other piece of Iatiku lived in the world and gave life to it. Iatiku had her own myth which featured her two daughters. One was named after her mother with the other named Nautsiti. Eventually, daughter Iatiku became the mother of the Indians while Nautsiti became the mother of the “whites” or Europeans.
The Thinking Woman or “Tse Che Nako” spun her webs from her imagination. Her stories became real as she continued to spin, organizing life into patterns that continued to grow in size and complexity. Her webs continue to be woven and, the Pueblo believe, we become part weaver and part storyteller as we also are part of the web.
The mythology of Thinking Woman has no real ending. There is even one version of her story that predicts she will return. Historian and writer John Loftin mentions this: “Spider Woman was the first to weave. Her techniques and patterns have stood the test of time, or more properly, the test of timelessness – because they have always been present. It makes sense that one would follow the instructions of a deity who helped form the underlying structure of the world in which one lives…..…..Weaving is not an act in which one creates something oneself – it is an act in which one uncovers a pattern that was already there.”
So what web will you weave today? Do you believe as Loftin does that weaving uncovers what was already present? It is an interesting concept, I think. Our lives are a web of interconnected relationships, even for those who feel disenfranchised. No one becomes born alone. Our very introduction to this universe took at least two people – the female and male parents. And because infants are unable to feed themselves or even find food, none of use reached the age of five or six years without the help of others.
Let me give you one more quote from anthropologist Carol Patterson-Rudolph: “The Navajo have their own version of Spider Woman. As with all metaphors, Spider Woman is a bridge that allows a certain kind of knowledge to be transmitted from the mundane to the sacred dimension………they believe that an individual must undergo an initiation before he or she can be fully receptive to this kind of knowledge. Thus, to the eyes of the uninitiated, Spider Woman appears merely as an insect, and her words go unheard. But to the initiated whose mind has been opened the voice of this tiny creature can be heard. This is the nature of wisdom, conveyed through the metaphor of Spider Woman.”
No matter how independent we think we are, we need those who make up the strands of our webs of living. “What might we see, how might we act, if we saw with a webbed vision? The world seen through a web of relationships…as delicate as spider’s silk, yet strong enough to hang a bridge on.” In her book “From a Broken Web”, theologian Catherine Keller posed these thoughts.
No matter how delicate or ethereal a spider’s web might appear, they actually are very strong. I think sometimes we underestimate the webs in our own lives. We might not want to “bother” someone and ask for help. Perhaps it is the fragility of our own ego that prevents us from doing so. At this time of year, depression is at its highest. We need our webs to give us strength.
Today when someone mentions the word ‘web”, a spider is not the first thing that comes to mind. “Web” is the nickname for the Internet, the World Wide Web of technology that connects us all whether we like it or not. I read a statistic that is probably an exaggeration but it mentioned that an infant’s vital information will be posted on the “web” within an hour of its birth.
Today the myth of the Thinking Woman or Spider Woman is most often seen in the weavings of the southwestern Indian tribes. The pattern of the cross of the Spider Woman has become an important and popular symbol. The cross represents balance with the unification of the four directions or elements of the world. In the middle, though, is the most important element for it is the unifying force, the center.
Ecologists reference a great web of life and even physicists have an entanglement theory. There really is no denying that we are all connected. Neith was the primal weaver of ancient Egypt while Celtic mythology references the web of Wyrd. In India the great jewel net of Nedra has each gemstone reflecting every other gem. The Greeks believed the great weaver spirit gave Theseus a thread to lead him through his personal labyrinth. The original myths of Thinking Woman told of her sitting on one’s shoulder, whispering correct choices. Psychologists might call this our subconscious while some religious people might consider it an example of a guardian angel. Perhaps she is there with us, guiding us through the labyrinth of our own lives. Clearly we all need to be Thinking Men and Women, living to weave a web that benefits all.